Bhakti is a concept within the religion of Hinduism. When translated literally from Sanskrit to English, it means "share" or "participate." However, the word is more widely understood to mean devotion. Bhakti is the emphasis on a personal, emotional relationship with a deity.
Historically, ideas of bhakti can be traced back to the reformation period of Hinduism, circa 500 – 200 BCE. Before this time, Hinduism was marked by Vedic rituals, which focused on worldly things such as sons, gold, and rain. During the reformation period, these kinds of rituals were criticized. Hindus began to seek answers via internalized rituals such as yoga and asceticism. Through yoga and asceticism, one turns oneself into the ritual by using the body as a tool.
The following period, from circa 200 BCE – 1100 CE, is known as Classical Hinduism. This is the period in which the idea of bhakti became crystallized. Perhaps the most important and widely known source of ideas about this concept is the Bhagavad Gita, a portion of the Mahabharata text which originated during the period of Classical Hinduism. The Gita, as it is known familiarly, expounds upon the ideas through the story of the relationship between the warrior, Arjuna, and the god, Krishna. The Gita unequivocally shifts the emphasis away from Vedic ritual, and names bhakti as the correct way to honor the gods. It is the core message of the Gita.
A discussion about this concept necessarily includes the mention of bhakti yoga, jñana yoga, and karma yoga. These three types of yoga are the teachings of the Gita. Traditionally, the objective of performing yoga is to realize that atman equals Brahman. Atman is the self, and Brahman is the abstract concept referring to the principle of universality. Brahman makes everything else possible and known, and yet is nameless and formless.
Jñana yoga is mental yoga, and seeks to realize the equivalence of individuality and totality through disassociating the mind with the temporary, and associating it with the constant Brahman. Karma yoga also has the goal of realizing that atman equals Brahman, and is carried out through the ceasing of attachment, and the ceasing of creating karma through will or volition. Conversely, bhakti yoga does not seek to link atman with Brahman, but rather to link atman to the god, to link self and deity, through devotion.
Jñana yoga and karma yoga require strict discipline of the body and mind, two things that are difficult to control. The idea presented in the Gita is that bhakti, the yoga of emotional devotion, is easy because it’s easy to love. The Gita teaches that out of all forms of discipline, the highest form is the discipline of devotion. Bhakti yoga adds an element of humanity to honoring the gods because it personalizes discipline through emotion.
In the Gita, bhakti is a universal way to understand Krishna, and to participate in the path to liberation. It is universal because, whereas not everyone can be karmically or mentally perfect, everybody can love. Although the concept begins with emotion, it is ultimately something that one does with one’s whole body through a combination of emotion and puja, or physical worship. Thus, jñana yoga and karma yoga are incorporated into bhakti yoga, because when one devotes ones heart, the body and mind will follow.
So how does one love a god? The idea of bhakti carries with it a certain contradiction, in the sense that it questions whether gods are imminent or eminent. How is it possible for a human to have a personal relationship with the divine? How can human emotion bring the transcendental closer? These questions bring up an important concept regarding the theory and practice of bhakti. This is the concept of káma vs. prema.
Both káma and prema are ideas of love, but they are very distinct. Káma is worldly love, metaphorically associated with marriage, procreation, and social order. Thus it implies attachment to the beloved, and a sense of ownership. Káma aims at self-satisfaction, is contractual and stable, but can be lost if expectations are not met. Káma is socially useful love, typically understood as the love shared by a man and his wife.
Prema, on the other hand, is divine, self-less love. Káma is metaphorically associated with illicit love affairs, and has no other goal than pleasure. Prema only seeks to serve the beloved, and will forego self-satisfaction to do so. Prema is sacrificial, uncertain, unrestrained, and has no expectations. Prema is the love shared between deity and devotee through bhakti, the most well known example of which is the affair between the god Krishna and his human lover, Rhada.
Although bhakti is most commonly associated with devotion to Krishna, other gods can be the objects of devotion as well.